Distributor gone bad?

My 1988 Civic Wagovan (140k, 4cyl 5sp 4WD) has a problem. Every now and then (couple weeks or so), I’ll be driving along normally, and the tach will suddenly start to flutter up and down erractically for a few seconds and then the car stalls. Occassionally the car will slightly lurch before/during this fluttlering. It won’t restart immediately, but if it sits for a bit it has always started back up (though not always on the first try). Other than that, it is running well. Any thoughts?



By your statement “restart” are you saying it wont crank, or is it cranking and it just wont start? If it wont crank at all, like a dead battery, then you have a major short somewhere in the electrical system. If it will crank but wont start you have a problem with the ignition system

It cranks, in that it is trying to start but won’t turn over. It’s hit or miss whether it starts back up the first try or not, sometimes it takes a few tries. I’m assuming the engine dying and engine not starting problems are related - is it possible (or probable) they aren’t?

Get yourself a remanufactured distributor. This will include a new “igniter” inside which is almost certainly what’s giving you grief. I did this myself a couple years ago with my '88 Accord, which was doing the same thing but not as severe, and it runs great now.

A twitching tachometer needle is usually a sign of a fault in the secondary ignition system.
The first thing I would do is remove the distributor cap and note if there is any sideways movement in the distributor rotor and shaft. There should be none. If the shaft is noticeably loose you need another distributor.

Other possibilities could be a failing pickup coil in the dist., ignition module, or even a failing ignition coil.
If the dist. shaft is tight and I had to make a guess at one of the others listed I would guess at the module, followed by the pickup coil and the ignition coil last. There are tests for these items but the tests may not be valid since the problem could be heat related and the cause may disappear before the test is performed.

To add to OK4450’s post, to check the distributor shaft play, you need to remove the rotor cap so that you can see the vanes and the pickup (ignitor). Turn the engine over until a vane is lined up with the blade on the pickup, you can see the gap between the two. If you try to move the shaft, you still may not see the movement or change in the gap. To be sure, slip a .010 feeler gauge in the gap and now push on the shaft. If you can push the shaft enough to open the gap to .017, you need to replace the distributor.